Consensual nonmonogamy is a relationship style in which all partners openly agree to the possibility of having more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at a time. These relationships are common, with about 1 in 5 North American adults saying they’ve been in some type of sexually open relationship before.
At the same time, however, these relationships are also frequently stigmatized and widely misunderstood. For example, a common stereotype of consensually nonmonogamous relationships is that they are only about sex, or that greater sexual opportunity is the primary thing that draws people to them. Likewise, many see these relationships as being rooted in problems and that people who open their relationships tend to do so because they are inherently unhappy.
However, the reality is that people can be drawn to consensual nonmonogamy for a very diverse set of reasons. In fact, research has identified at least six distinct motives.
In a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers surveyed 540 people who were currently in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship. Participants were age 34 on average and most were from North America. The average number of current partners reported was two, although some reported up to 11.
The key question participants were asked was as follows: “Please tell us about your reasons for participating in a multipartnered/consensually non-monogamous relationship.
Participants could write as much or as little as they wanted in response—and the researchers then coded all responses for themes.
The results generated six broad, interconnected themes. Each is described below with brief descriptions in the words of the study’s authors:
“It was important to participants to feel as if they had control over their own bodies and the ways that they interacted and connected with others. Having sexual and relational autonomy appeared to foster independence.”
Essentially, this theme centered around the idea of doing what felt most natural to the individual and being one’s authentic self.
2.) Belief Systems
“These beliefs reflected a tension between the constraints of monogamy and the possibilities offered by CNM as well as ideas about how personal and interpersonal needs should be fulfilled.”
Put another way, persons in multi-partner relationships tended to see monogamy as restrictive and potentially harmful to one’s well-being, with open relationships offering the ability to grow and explore the self.
Another common belief system involved the idea that it is difficult to have one partner who meets all of your needs, sexually and emotionally.
“Participants also conveyed that CNM relationships afforded them the ability to develop and maintain friendships, build community, and create their own families. CNM was also a way to meet a partner’s needs, to develop connection, and nourish a current partnership. Participants explained that CNM allowed them to engage in interpersonal relationships in ways that reflected their ethics and allowed for relational integrity.”
In other words, this theme was about being part of a supportive community and having the opportunity to build more connections with others—connections that are good for one’s psychological well-being and that strengthen all of their relationships. Many participants also talked about how this kind of relationship allows them to meet their needs with integrity—without having to hide things from a partner or engage in deception.
“Three subthemes capture how CNM was viewed as a relational structure that provided participants with the opportunity to explore their sexual identities and expressions, experience variety, novelty, and excitement, and manage sexual discrepancies in their partnership(s).”
Put another way, participants felt that multi-partner relationships allow the opportunity to explore queer and kink identities, offer more sexual fun and adventure, and provide avenues for dealing with discrepant sexual desires/interests in relationships.
5.) Growth and Expansion
“Many observed that having multiple partners fostered both personal and relational growth and provided opportunities for self-expansion.”
Consensually non-monogamous relationships were seen as an opportunity to broaden one’s sense of self and experience more variety in non-sexual activities in a way that reduces pressure on any given partner.
They were also seen as a way of growing and expanding a current relationship, allowing for deeper intimacy and connection as well as a greater feeling of security.
“CNM was articulated as more practical than monogamy and fit with participants’ current lifestyle and life stage. They described the ways that CNM allowed them to meet the demands of their work and family life, to maintain long-distance relationships, and have relationships that were suitable for their stage of life.”
In other words, many felt that multi-partner relationships were just a practical way of managing their lives and achieving life goals.
Of course, it is important to note that these findings may not necessarily be representative of the overall population of individuals involved in consensual nonmonogamy—and it is possible that there are other reasons/motives behind why many people are drawn to these relationships.
However, these findings tell us that people’s reasons for pursuing consensually nonmonogamous relationships are many and varied. Further, it is important to note that most participants reported multiple reasons for engaging in these relationships, which suggests that they tend to see a range of potential benefits, as opposed to being drawn by just one thing.
Also, while sex did emerge as one of the six main motives, it is clear from this work that consensual nonmonogamy is about far more than just sex—it’s also about broader psychological fulfillment and being one’s true self.
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To learn more about this research, see: Wood, J., De Santis, C., Desmarais, S., & Milhausen, R. (2021). Motivations for engaging in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
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